keyboard_arrow_uptop

Part Two
Part One

From 1946 though 1993, National League Most Valuable Player awards could be
safely predicted, with only a handful of exceptions, using just a few
indicators. Since that time, however, the system has already made three
major mistakes (the MVP was not selected as a candidate by the system) and
one minor mistake (the tie-breaker selected the wrong candidate). That’s
four out of eight correct calls, a rate that on the face of it suggests that
the system may no longer work.

In this conclusion to the series, I’ll look at reasons why National League
MVP voters may be changing how they go about their business, examine the
wrong predictions since 1994, and speculate about the future usefulness of
the MVP predictor.

Four things have changed that may have spelled the end for the old ways of
choosing MVPs:

  • The 1994 realignment, featuring three division winners and a wild card,
    added new candidates each year;

  • A surge in offensive level yielded far more hitters from with a .300
    batting average and far more 100 RBI seasons;

  • Sportswriters now have access to far more information than they did 30
    or 40 or even ten years ago;

  • Coors Field.

The first two factors, the expanded playoffs and higher levels of offense,
both have the same result: they increase the number of candidates produced
by the system. In other words, the guidelines that in the 1950s and 1960s
could often identify an MVP, and in the 1970s and 1980s could narrow the
field to two or three candidates, may now yield several candidates.

Recall that the system supposes that writers narrow the field by giving
credit for a small set of accomplishments, including playing for a winning
team, playing an up-the-middle defensive position for a winning team,
achieving 100 RBIs, maintaining a .300 BA, and leading the league in a
triple-crown category. The system works, presumably, because it accurately
reflects the need of the voters to find shortcuts, to make the job
manageable even as they continue to file daily game stories and prepare for
the off-season.

In 1951, when Roy Campanella won the award, there was only one
first-place team (although Campanella’s Dodgers forced a playoff with the
Giants). Campanella was one of eight National League players with a .300
batting average and also one of eight with at least 100 runs batted in. In
1971, Joe Torre was one of just four National Leaguers to knock in at
least 100 runs, although the list of .300 BA hitters was longer at 14. In
2001, I count 25 players with 100 RBIs and 26 regulars with at least a .300
BA. At that level, whether or not the writers still believe that these
figures are important milestones, there may simply be too long a list
generated to serve as a useful shortcut.

The third change for present day voters is the increase in available
information, including the mainstream emergence of sabermetric ideas.
Presumably none of the sportswriters makes use of
Equivalent Average
or VORP,
but in an era in which Peter Gammons talks about the wonders of OPS, it
wouldn’t be shocking if writers used evidence beyond the old BA/HR/RBI.

Readers under the age of 25 may not realize just how little information was
available as recently as 1980. USA Today began printing a full
statistical package once a week in the 1980s, and many newspapers converted
to a more informative daily leaderboard feature a few years later. Before
that, not only were basic stats such as OBP and SLG almost completely
unavailable, but even the raw material for those stats was hard to come by.
Standard box scores did not include batters’ bases on balls, and I do not
believe that The Sporting News‘s weekly stats package included them
either. Most newspapers ran triple-crown leaders daily–usually the top ten
in batting average and a handful of leaders in RBIs, HRs, and little
else–and a weekly list of all players, ranked by batting average, that
included very little information.

I don’t know whether the packages provided by the teams to their beat
reporters included, for example, walks, but I suspect that the beat writers
who did the voting had little more to help them than the public did. What it
all comes down to is that an enterprising sportswriter who had read and
absorbed the first Bill James Baseball Abstracts would have had an
awful hard time making use of that new perspective in MVP voting. There was
an explosion of new information in the 1980s, including the
deservedly-mocked situational stats, but until reporters were able to turn
to the Web, they were dependent on the press-relations departments of the
various teams to put it all together. So the proper time frame for the
impact of the information explosion is the mid-1990s.

The last curve thrown to the National League MVP voters was expansion to
Denver in 1993, followed by the debut of Coors Field in 1995. Baseball
people, including sportswriters, have known a little bit about park effects
for decades, but there’s no sign that MVP voters took any account of Wrigley
Field or the Astrodome when filling out their ballots. Not so here: everyone
knew right away that Denver was different. However, knowing that parks
affect what happens in them is only the first step in knowing how to deal
with Coors Field when voting for MVPs, and it was not at all clear what the
voters would do. First, they would be faced with system-labeled candidates
who were undeserving, and on top of that, to the extent that Rockies
dominated the triple-crown stats, the voters would have to decide how to
award credit for leading the league. Should a runner-up to a Mile High
player receive credit for "leading" the league?

In the last several years, then, National League MVP Award voters who had
previously used the shortcuts that make up the MVP predictor presented here
have been faced with confusion. Of the seven points available, four (the two
involving winning teams, and the two statistical standards) had become far
less discriminating measures, and the other three (leading the league in
triple crown stats) were often unavailable or pointed to guys such as
Dante Bichette, who really didn’t strike anyone as an MVP. Plus there
was all that new information, and some senior sportswriters and some
baseball executives were saying that you had to pay attention to some of
it–it wasn’t just a few cranky computer nerds, although that group was
probably peppering plenty of the voters with e-mail full of odd acronyms.

What to do? The voters could continue as they had in the past, as best as
they could. They could reject the old statistical approaches and find new,
non-statistical ways of picking MVPs; the new information certainly could
arm anyone wishing to vote for a non-traditional candidate with some
fancy-sounding information. They could adopt new statistical standards to
replace the old ones. Or, they could muddle through, depending on the
circumstances.

The first year under the new conditions was an odd one on top of all of
that, because the season ended in August. Nevertheless, the system correctly
predicted the winner: Jeff Bagwell was one of four candidates, and he
easily won the tie breaker (BA + HR + RBI + 15 for division winners + 15 for
up-the-middle defensive position). In calculating the predicted winner, I
assume that voters treated the teams in first place when play stopped as
division winners, and that voters retained the 100-RBI standard even in the
short season. Both assumptions seem reasonable to me, but it is worth noting
that Bagwell’s Astros finished second in the NL Central (and were leading
for the wild card), so that Bagwell’s candidacy would be enhanced if voters
ignored the standings. Bagwell, however, is a case that proves very little;
he would have been the MVP for 1994 under most plausible criteria. (Caveat:
had the season continued, Bagwell’s broken hand, suffered just before the
strike, would have damaged or even ended his candidacy.)

In 1995, Coors Field opened, and for the next three years Coors swamped the
MVP predictor. In 1995 and 1996, the system produced just one candidate each
year: Dante Bichette in 1995, and Andres Galarraga in 1996.
Voters rejected both. In 1997, the system identified a record six
candidates, including Rockies Galarraga and Larry Walker; Walker was
the easy winner of the tiebreaker, and this time the voters rewarded the
Coors candidate.

What can we conclude from these three cases? First, there does not appear to
be a simple deduction for playing in Coors. Both Bichette in 1995 and
Galarraga in 1996 were stronger candidates under the system than was Walker
in 1997, so if there was an across-the-board discount for Rockies, then
Walker would not have been the only winner. Beyond that, it is harder to
draw lessons.

The Bichette case looks basically like the 1988 Darryl Strawberry/Kirk
Gibson
case and other previous system mistakes. In each of these cases,
the winner was elevated from system obscurity. Bichette had four system
points in 1995, while Barry Larkin was one of several players with
three points, but fared poorly in the tie breaker; Mike Piazza
(.346/32/93) should have been an easy choice over Larkin (.319/15/66). The
voters opted for non-system candidate Larkin in a close race (281-251) over
system selection Bichette, just as they had bolted the system for Gibson
over Strawberry in another narrow contest.

The 1996 race was different. Instead of a strong runner-up, four-pointer
Galarraga fared poorly in the voting, finishing in a distant tie for sixth.
The winner, Ken Caminiti, was one of a number of three-point
candidates, and had impressive triple-crown stats (.326/40/130), within 15
of Galarraga’s combined numbers (.304/47*/150*), and easily the best of
any non-Rockie. In other words, while 1995 looks like a typical system
miss, in which the system candidate is narrowly defeated by an MVP chosen
for qualities the predictor ignores, in 1996 the voters almost ignored the
system candidate and selected the system runner-up.

Then in 1997, the voters rewarded the first Coors MVP. Unlike Bichette and
Galarraga, Larry Walker had established a strong reputation before arriving
in Colorado (Galarraga had also played well north of the border, but was a
disaster in St. Louis); perhaps that made his Coors performance more
"real" to the voters. Walker’s season was also one that, in fact,
looked good (but not MVP-level) after adjusting for park context, while the
other two seasons were really pretty mediocre but for Coors Field; still, it
is hard to believe the voters make such distinctions. If they do, it is hard
to imagine exactly what triggers the distinction. All in all, I see no
explanation other than a long list of ad hoc rationalizations, none of which
can be even strongly supported, let alone proven.

Following the three Coorsflation seasons, we have now had four seasons in
which the candidate lists have been relatively Rockie-free. The system was
correct in two of those years. Jeff Kent was the lone four-point
candidate in 2000, and Sammy Sosa beat seven other three point
candidates in the 1998 tiebreaker. As discussed earlier, Barry Bonds
narrowly lost the tiebreaker to Sosa in 2001, but took home the award
anyway.

In each of these seasons, the predictor seemed to function normally, with
two correct selections and one understandable tie-breaker error. Indeed,
while it is never possible to know what would have happened had
circumstances changed, it is not entirely far-fetched to imagine that Sosa
might have won the 2001 award had the Cubs won the NL Central, or that Luis
Gonzalez might have won had he managed to hold on to the league lead in
RBIs, despite the amazing year Bonds had. It is tempting to suppose that
only the narrow differences between the candidates allowed the voters to
ignore their normal procedures and support the new home-run king.

A far different story, however, needs to be told about the 1999 season.
Chipper Jones, late-season heroics notwithstanding, was one of
several candidates with three system points. For the first time in the
entire era under consideration, however, a system winner was completely
ignored by voters. Jones, with the division-winning Braves, had a .319 BA
and 110 RBIs. Three points. Mark McGwire (.278/65*/147*) also had three
points, and easily outpaced Jones in the tiebreaker. McGwire finished fifth
in the voting, behind Jones, three-pointers Jeff Bagwell (.310/47/132) and
Matt Williams (.303/35/142), and single pointer Greg Vaughn
(.245/45/118). Bagwell drew support, but another division-winning Astro was
thoroughly ignored by the voters. Carl Everett (.325/25/108) had four
system points, but finished 17th in the voting. He is, in the almost six
decades considered here, the first system selection that the voters had no
use for at all.

Why? One possibility is that the voters were repulsed by Everett’s
personality. His reputation, while possibly not as bad in 1999 as it is now,
after his tour with the Red Sox, has never been very positive. However, this
explanation seems implausible to me. Turning with some trepidation to the
American League, I note that Albert Belle was similarly "robbed"
of an award in both 1995 and 1996, yet he finished second in one year and
third in the other. Of course, I do not claim that the predictor works in
the American League anyway–it has rarely picked a correct winner in the
last 15 years–but the point here is that voters appear capable of voting
for a player they presumably dislike, even if they are unwilling to place
him first on their ballots.

Instead, I suspect that the answer is that in an age with three division
winners, each of whom has four players at up-the-middle positions, it is
simply not enough for one of those players to hit .300 and knock in 100
runs. By not enough, I mean that it’s not enough to get noticed. Perhaps
voters simply don’t care about those landmarks any more, but more likely
they are finding other ways of narrowing their choices, or, when they find
that their normal methods do not work, they depart from them and find new,
non-statistical methods of finding a winner.

Indeed, there was another somewhat similar case in 2001. The Cardinals
finished in a dead heat with the Astros for the Central Division lead and
for the wild card; thanks to the tie-breaker, St. Louis was the wild card.
Generally, the system does not give credit for winning to wild card teams,
but if the Cardinals were a "winner" in 2001, then Jim Edmonds
would be the predicted MVP with a four-point season. As it is, the system
gives Edmonds just two points, and the voters gave him absolutely nothing,
not even a stray tenth-place vote.

From these eight cases in the new era, I think there are a few lessons to be
learned. Sometimes–five out of eight so far, if we include the Bonds
tie-breaker error as understandable–the old norms still apply. Sometimes,
Coors will produce a winner so unqualified that the voters will reject him,
but so far at least there’s no way to tell what will trigger the voters to
do that. And sometimes, the new conditions of the game will produce a system
prediction that the voters reject, as they did with Everett in 1999. In
those cases where the normal standards do not guide voters, there is no
apparent objective new set of standards replacing the old.

When they do reject the candidate, the winner is about as unpredictable as
ever. Chipper Jones and Ken Caminiti both had very visible big series late
in the pennant race, and Caminiti and Barry Larkin were both widely
considered the leaders of their teams, but other players have had big
pennant-race games or a good reputation for leadership without getting the
award. Each of the recent winners in system mistake years was a veteran
player who had not previously won an MVP (Jones won it in his fifth season,
at the age of 27), but that was not true of Roy Campanella back in 1955.
Each of the recent people on the list were on division winners, but not
Roberto Clemente in 1966. None of the 1990s group was on a miracle
team, unlike Frank Robinson in 1961. Jones’s Braves and Larkin’s Reds
won their divisions easily. Perhaps voters are seeing things that outsiders
cannot spot. Or, perhaps, there are bandwagon effects; when the normal ways
of narrowing the field don’t work, writers use baseball columnists and
"Baseball Tonight" commentators to suggest candidates.

On balance, I think the predictor is still a useful tool. It defines the
normal way that NL MVPs are selected; it is the other awards that are in
need of explanation. While their American League colleagues increasingly
vote in seemingly random ways (Ichiro!?), National League voters
appear to apply consistent standards, at least most of the time, at least
when the standards yield plausible results.

Jonathan Bernstein‘s favorite
Blue Sox heroes have always been Pete Gibbs and Tweet Tillman. He once again
thanks the folks at rec.sport.baseball
and others who have informed this study, and especially thanks Henry Schulman
for his helpful comments.